An audio version of this sermon is available here.
Good morning! It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here with you this morning sharing in the worship of God and sharing together God’s Word for us today. Many of you know that two Wednesdays ago we welcomed our second child, our first boy, Ezra into our family so he’s about 11 days old today. I want to thank everyone for the love and the support during this time of sleeplessness and adjustment. Thank you so much for your kind comments, cards, food, and overwhelming love. You all, as our spiritual family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have been embodying for us the love of God. It’s one thing to read about and intellectually grasp Christ’s command to really “love one another” and it’s a whole other thing to actually experience that love – to have the love of Christ modeled for us and to us as a young family. So thank you so much, and also thank you for being a great sermon illustration of what Scripture points us to today, which is that the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God, is not just something that we read about, it’s not just something that we intellectually grasp or teach to others in a classroom. People are discipled the most when we have an intense investment in mentoring and being mentored and when we go beyond teaching and model the Gospel.
Please open your bibles to Acts chapter 20. We’ll be looking at a large section of text which begins with Acts 20:17 and goes through the end of the chapter. In this section Paul has gathered the elders of Ephesus and is sharing basically a farewell speech as he is leaving the region and continuing on his mission to bring the gospel to the nations.
Follow along in your bibles as I read a few of the verses from the beginning of this passage, Acts 20:17-20:
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: "You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.
Paul recounts those first days when he arrived in Ephesus, before these elders knew anything about the gospel or Jesus Christ. It says he taught publicly and also from house to house. Paul was teaching concrete truths through speeches and lessons about the kingdom of God, but if you look closely, he starts this paragraph, this speech, not with remembering public or house to house teachings, but with his actions. He says first and foremost “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you…I served the Lord with great humility…I served the Lord with tears…I was severely tested.” Paul recounts his life and holds himself up as a model for the advancement of the gospel. As Paul speaks to these elders, his spiritual children, he reminds them not only of the abc’s of repentance and faith, but of the way in which he lived, the way in which he modeled the gospel the whole time he was with them.
We know this, of course, as parents of our physical children, that much of the learning that occurs during development is acquired through observation and imitation, through modeling. Children pay more attention to what an adult does than to what an adult merely says. That’s why adults invented the phrase “Do what I say, not what I do!” I saw this video clip on America’s Funniest Videos.
Children learn the behavior that is modeled to them, whether good or bad. A famous modeling study done across 10 states showed that if a child’s parents used seatbelts then about 80% of the children would also use seatbelts whereas the children of parents who did not model this behavior of putting on seatbelts had as low as a 11% rate of using their seatbelts. Children learn the behavior that is modeled to them. The same is true for our spiritual children, those new to the faith no matter what their physical age, they pay so much more attention to what we do tangibly, than to what we merely say.
Being a Christian is not simply a set of propositions, an accumulation of knowledge or facts that one agrees to, certainly not a list of rules. I saw these pictures on Facebook last Wednesday of Jonathan Cronkhite’s battle against an Armadillo. Jonathan apparently has a problem with an armadillo digging and tearing up his yard so what did he do? Fortunately for us, and the Facebook community, he did not call someone with experience to remove the armadillo, but instead Googled up some information and then tried to put into practice what he learned from the internet.
Returning to our text, let’s skip down a few verses to Acts 20:26-31:
Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
We see here that those whom Paul initially discipled through teaching and modeling are now being called themselves to be shepherds for the next spiritual generation. They are called to be mentoring and mentored. There are three spiritual generations in this text. There is Paul who mentored the Ephesian Elders. Then you have the Ephesian Elders who were mentored by Paul and are being called to mentor others, to be shepherds and models. Then you have the new Christians, the sheep who need to be mentored. We are all on a spectrum with regards to our Christian faith, our walk with Christ.
Some of us are brand new in Christ, having put our faith and trust in him, some of you here today may not even feel comfortable saying that. You might just be spiritually curious, if you are I’m so glad you’re here today. Whether we recognize it or not, those of us just now connecting to God in a deep way: you need modeling mentors. Faith and spirituality are not just a list of things to learn and comprehend. So, how do you enter into a mentoring relationship, like Paul has with these elders? How do you find a mentor. Write this down, it’s very complicated, choose someone you think would be a good mentor and then ask “Would you consider a mentoring relationship with me?” You are not a spiritual orphan, look around at this spiritual family. Whenever a new covenant partner comes to Trinity, we ask this question: “Do you promise to welcome these, who have reaffirmed their faith in Jesus Christ, as covenant partners of of Trinity Presbyterian Church, and do you promise to help them find meaningful fellowship and ministry as we worship and serve God together?” This is your family, bonded together by the Spirit of God, we have vowed to help you find meaningful fellowship and ministry, worshiping and serving God together. Ask and you shall receive.
Now, some of us have been on this path for awhile. We have been shepherded, we have matured in our faith, we have had a mentor or two, perhaps for you, today is the day that you commit to being a mentor. Perhaps today is the day, that you decide you won’t be spiritually barren anymore and instead be a spiritual parent, a mentor, a model to someone younger in the faith than you are. Invite them to join you when you go and serve at Habitat for Humanity, bring them along the next time you lead a small group or a time of prayer. Share with them the dilemmas you face and the struggles you’ve had. Talk to them directly about their spiritual goals and look for ways you can help them move forward. Encourage them to mentor someone else themselves.
That’s the ideal for most of us, to be in the position that the Ephesian elders are in: Mentoring others and being mentored ourselves. Whether it’s being an apprentice or being a mentor, or both, I encourage you to follow Paul’s model of discipleship seen here with the Ephesians.
Before we move to the final portion of this passage, I want to note one more aspect of this text. We’ve noted that Paul models the gospel and that ideally Christians are mentoring and being mentored. We also note that this type of discipleship modeled by Paul requires an intense investment. Back when I was a high school biology teacher, one of the things we studied that was always exciting was reproduction and the different strategies that animals use for reproduction. Don’t worry I don’t have any diagrams for you today. One strategy is that some animals produce a multitude of offspring and hope that some of them survive. The parents have a very low level of investment for an individual child. Perhaps you’ve seen the baby sea turtles that experts say only about 1 out of 1000 will make it to adulthood. By the way I don’t advise crushing your children with that detail. It is a beautiful scene here, but you’ll notice there is no momma turtle. Other animals take a different strategy and produce relatively very few offspring but have an intense investment so that the chances of survival shoot up dramatically. Humans are an example of this. We don’t have thousands of children, most of us have a handful and our children require a lot of attention and care. We don’t set them down on the beach and say good luck. No, we sacrifice our space, our time, our sweet precious sleep, and almost all of our resources on just a few children. We have an intense investment in their development and their survival.
This second strategy is Paul’s strategy, spiritually speaking. Paul says in verse 31: “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” For three years, night and day, with intense emotional involvement, that is, with tears. Paul is intensely invested in his spiritual children. Modeling only works if the parent has a regular, active and continuing presence in the lives of their children. The same is true spiritually.
At the end of this last January we had a denominational gathering in Orlando and one of the speakers that really resonated with me was a man named Leighton Ford, perhaps you’ve heard of him. Leighton Ford among many other things is the brother-in-law to Billy Graham.
The description on his website says this:
“Dr. Ford is President of Leighton Ford Ministries which focuses on raising up younger leaders to spread the message of Christ worldwide. He has spoken face to face to millions of people in 37 countries on every continent of the world and served from 1955 until 1985 as Associate Evangelist and later Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. For many years Dr. Ford was featured as the alternate speaker to Billy Graham on the Hour of decision broadcast and his own daily TV and radio spots in the United States, Canada, and Australia.”
Dr. Ford shared with us in Orlando from a book he recently wrote called The Mentoring Tree. The introduction, written by Dr. Roger Parrott to that book says this:
As chair of the Leighton Ford Ministries board, I’m often asked by church leaders, “What is Leighton doing these days?” The answer they are expecting to hear is about some project of scope like the significant ministry initiatives which have been an important part of Leighton’s life, including leading Lausanne 1 and Lausanne II congresses, preaching for huge crusades or conferences, or creating the Sandy Ford Fund and Arrow Leadership Program.
But instead of focusing on those public portions of his ministry path, I take great joy in sharing with them an entirely different priority that has become the center of Leighton’s life – mentoring. Following the ministry pattern of Jesus, Leighton is investing in the deep relationships that equip a new generation of evangelists and ministry leaders, rather than being driven by the measurable ministry projects that can consume us.
In the first chapter of the book, Dr. Ford tells a parable about two types of trees. The first tree is the Banyan tree. You can see this is an incredibly massive tree and there is an Indian Proverb that says “Nothing grows under the shade of the Banyan tree.” The second tree is the Aspen Tree. Aspen trees, in contrast to the Banyan tree, are tall and slender, not known for their massive proportions, but they are unique. Dr. Ford writes this:
Have you ever seen an aspen grove? At first it looks like any other grove, a bunch of the same kind of tree. But it’s not. An aspen grove is actually one tree connected by its roots and the roots are out of sight under the soil. An aspen tree spreads out its roots and grows many trunks. Those who count these things say that one grove, one they call ‘Pando’, probably has forty one thousand stems off one root stock. It’s really one tree with many branches.”
Some leaders are like the Banyan Tree, they grow massively and can be seen for miles, but nothing grows under the shade of the Banyan tree. There is no mentoring or intense investment in the next spiritual generation. Other leaders, like Jesus, like Paul, like Dr. Ford, hopefully like you and I, are like the Aspen, putting a deep and intense investment into the ground and as a result seeing thousands of new trees, new leaders coming up. Again I encourage us to follow Paul’s model here from God’s Word today and intensely invest in a mentoring/modeling relationship.
At the very end of our passage as Paul says his final farewell to the Ephesian elders, we see that Paul’s modeling is a Missional Modeling. Let’s look at Acts 20:36-38:
When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.
First let’s notice the impact that Paul has had through modeling and an intense investment in the Ephesian elders. In our first passage we read in verse 19 that Paul “served the Lord with great humility and with tears.” Then in our second passage in verse 21 we read that “for three years [Paul] never stopped warning each of you night and day with…tears.” Here in our final passage what happens? They all weep. His modeling is working! He cries all the time and now they are crying. In all seriousness though, we see that the deep love and intense emotional investment that Paul has demonstrated and modeled is now an ingrained part of who his spiritual children, the Ephesian elders, are.
Beyond that, what’s wonderful here, is that though the Ephesian elders are deeply grieved that their mentor, Paul, is leaving them, they do pray together and send him off. As important as it is for us to intensely invest in others, to mentor and model, so also is it important to recognize when the time comes for our spiritual children to stand on their own. Children grow up, they move out of the house. It’s hard for me to imagine my 3 year old daughter not living with us anymore but I’m told one day that will happen. Some children mature very quickly and others may still be living with us. This is probably the hardest and most difficult aspect of being a parent, both physically and spiritually. It is done with tears, but there comes a time when, because the mission is so great, that we are called to go and mentor others as Paul does. . If you find yourself in the youth program, in your small group, or even during sermons saying “I’m not being fed enough”, maybe it’s because your full and you need to make the transition into mentorship and feeding others. Some of us may have been a member of a life group for over 10 years now. Perhaps, and I don’t want any hate mail – I know this is difficult, but perhaps now is the time for you to consider leading a life group of your own or joining a missional community. Perhaps you’ve attended church services for awhile now and today is the day that you decide it’s time to go over to Mission Central and go be a mentor outside these walls at the DOCK, Space Coast Center for Mothers with Children, Community of Hope, or one of our other partners. As the Church, the body of Christ, if we aren’t both grieving and celebrating the sending of our leaders and the raising up of new leaders, then we’ve lost this key missional modeling given to us by Paul.
As we near the end of this series, The Tangible Kingdom, let’s ask ourselves how in our lives have we been mentored and how are we mentoring others with intense investments. Ultimately how does our modeling and discipleship reflect the mission of God, to go and take the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom to our communities and those who are spiritually thirsty.
Click here for my other sermon in this series: No Other Name.